Here’s a MG fantasy adventure for younger readers.
When Chieftain Shagbark dies suddenly, his successor Acorn must step into his place. Acorn is sure his old friend has been killed, but he has his paws full when Sterling leads his band of outlanders and gangsters to take over the town — and he has dark magic on his side. Acorn must fight as never before for his tribe, his people — and his life. Fans of Erin Hunter and the Warrior series, and fans of the Redwall series, will enjoy this book.
The Chieftain was written in 1993-1995, back when I was in college. I drew a bunch of illustrations to go with it, too. Then I sent it out starting in 1996, but the editors never requested the full. However, I started writing the other two books in the raccoon trilogy — but unlike the raccoons in The Chieftain, these raccoons didn’t wear clothes or act like little people.
About 20 years later, I finally rewrote The Chieftain as Outlander’s Scar. Outlanders shares the same setting, the same main character, and the other main characters are pretty much the same as in Chieftain, except with different names. However, the events are different, the setup is different, and the writing is much different.
I have gone ahead and published Chieftain because it’s illustrated, it’s still a good story, and the audience is younger than that for Outlander’s Scar, though there’s still plenty of overlap.
Here’s the first chapter of The Chieftain. Enjoy!
The full moon shone through the branches of the Great Oak when I finished my speech. I sighed, glad to be done, and the wind sighed back in the dying wine-red leaves. The raccoons who I would soon lead as chieftain made a light stir as they leaned over the whisper to their neighbors. One of the three councilmen sitting at the foot of the mossy hillock where I stood squinted up at me. “Thank you, Acorn. You may step down.”
When I did, Paddy, the newsmonger, hopped up in my place. “Good speech,” he whispered, flashing his grin. I sat next to Chieftain Shagbark, who nodded, and I gave both a nervous smile.
“Folk!” Paddy said in his carrying voice. “You may take a few moments to stretch before we hear the final speech for the chieftainship, which Shagbark will give in Acorn’s behalf.”
Shagbark, his grizzled salt-and-pepper fur glowing in the starlight that sifted through the forest canopy, leaned toward me. “Boy, you done well,” he rumbled.
My heart swelled. I had followed at Shagbark’s heels since I was a toddling cub, walking with him on rounds and learning the routines of the chieftain even before I’d know I was to be his successor. He seldom gave praise. I longed to hear him say how he thought highly of me, wanted him to say that he looked at me as his son, but I knew how unlikely that was.
“Thank you, sir,” I said, and he looked like he was going to say more – but a movement of black came out from behind the old chieftain, and the words died away in my throat.
Councilman Rhubarb had come over to us.
Shagbark, seeing him, clambered to his feet.
“Good chieftain,” Rhubarb said, clasping Shagbark’s forearms in greeting.
“Well met, councilman. Sorry I gotta speak against you.” Rhubarb was also running for the chieftainship, the only one running against me.
“Think nothing of it. I have a little blackberry mead that you might like. Would you like to have some before your speech?”
I got to my feet, glowering at Rhub. But Shagbark said, “I would like that very much. But go on ahead. I gotta talk to Acorn first.”
“Be quick.” Rhub inclined his head and went on to his tree.
I sat down with a thump, attracting Shagbark’s attention. “Boy. Boy? You sulking?”
I crossed my arms on my knees and stared down at them, pretending not to hear.
“You know how proud I am that you’re my student.”
Actual praise. I blushed a little under my fur. “Yeah. Thanks.”
Shagbark grumbled to himself and scratched his head. “For better or worse, you’ll be chieftain next, whatever Rhubarb thinks. You gotta act like a chieftain. You know that sometimes you gotta play politics. This is one of those times.”
I shrugged, wishing he’d notice my disappointment. He laid a paw on my head, then sighed. “Can’t let that mead go to waste. And by ‘go to waste’ I mean ‘let Rhub drink it.’ Hmph. We’ll talk after the speeches.” He squeezed my shoulder and sauntered off toward Rhub’s tree, cocking his head the way he did when he listened to his heart beating – he’d been having problems with it lately.
The cubs ran over to the woven-grass swing to climb aboard. Councilman Greypaw grabbed the swing and whirled them around as hard as she could until he fell down from dizziness. The cubs shrieked with delight. But I thought of Shagbark talking to Rhub as if they were old friends – okay, maybe they had been in the past – and my guts churned. This was my night. That old dog had no right to interfere – which was probably why he’d asked Shagbark to come with him. Another dig at me.
When Shagbark and Rhub came sauntering back, talking like old friends, not competitors, most of the townspeople had already returned to the square, the newsmonger was pacing about on the mound, and I was brooding. Shagbark sat down next to me. “Go ahead and introduce my speech,” he told Paddy. Then he plucked a bedraggled fern from next to the Oak and fanned himself, thought the autumn night was almost cold. He was panting, which was odd, and in my concern I forgot my peeved mood. “Are you all right?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” But then Paddy gestured toward him. Shagbark squeezed my shoulder and pressed on it as he fought to his feet. “Pray to Xolimache for me, boy.”
My heart softened. After all, he was speaking for me. As he took his place on the mound, he gave me a long look, sharp with affection. I returned it with my own serious gaze, praying to Xolimache within myself.
Shagbark began. “You may wonder why I chose for my successor a young raccoon….” I followed, though not too closely, because we had practiced our speeches over and over, off in a quiet part of the forest proper.
Once, Shagbark had interrupted my speech to say, “You know when I realized you were going to be the next chieftain?”
I had paused. “No. When?”
He grinned, lounging back against the mossy trunk of a maple. “You was just a little babe, actually, Your ma and pa were going out foraging, and you and your sis were tucked into a basket on her back, cute as puffballs. I asked if I could see you, and they said yes sir. So you’re in my paws, lookin kinda surprised to be out, and then I heard this little click in my mind. Then I saw it.”
Curious, I took a step in his direction. “Saw what?”
“It was like I had a vision,” he said quietly, as if seeing it again. “I saw that you were going to be the next chieftain. Then I was gone, and I saw some other stuff going on after I died … well, never mind that.”
“What?” A cold chill passed over me to hear him speak of his death. “What kind of other stuff?”
Shagbark became grave. “Shouldn’t’ve brought it up. It was a lot of stuff I didn’t understand. Hounds running through the forest – but I saw you fighting in the water. I saw you inside a fire and not getting burned.”
I couldn’t speak. That was going to happen to me?
Shagbark shrugged. “Don’t let it get to you. It’s like a dream – maybe it means something else. But I want you to listen to me. If I have advice for you, you be sure to take it. You listen and you believe me.”
–I snapped out of my memory. Shagbark was saying something that had not been in his original speech.
“I’ve gotta skip a few things tonight, folks,” he said, and his breathing sounded heavier than normal, which didn’t seem right. “I hope you’ll understand. But the reason I chose Acorn over Rhubarb to be your chieftain: it’s not just that he’s young, or smart, or quick in a fight. I’m choosing him because he loves the folks of this town.”
I flushed. Xoli, how did this get into the speech?
“You think that’s sappy, don’t you?” Shagbark said, his wry voice now with an edge. “Well, you’re thinking of the wrong kind of love. I’m talking about the powerful stuff that most raccoons can’t handle, that they’re scared of. It’s the love of the poor parents who give their cubs their food while they go hungry, so their babes can eat and survive. It’s the love that drives a warrior into battle to protect his own, even when the cause is hopeless and he’s sure he’s going to die. It’s the love of the wronged raccoon who forgives his enemy, despite disgrace.
“This love calls for sacrifice, and if you have this kind of love, you gotta be brave, a warrior, and you gotta be strong to carry out its demands. It won’t let you live until you’ve poured out all your blood for its sake. This love burned in our greatest chiefs – Firethorn, Laurel, Ironweed, and Hawk. It was that love that drove them to die in their town’s service, and I’m telling you that’s the kind of love he’s got.” Shagbark pointed at me, and I bowed my head, my ears ringing.
“Now Rhubarb doesn’t have this love the way Acorn does. You’ve gotta take care of the people, whether you love ‘em or not. I’m pointing at that incident that happened a couple of years back that made me demand that the chieftainship be taken from Rhubarb. He refused to help those cubs, because that family was below his notice, and as a result, some of ‘em died. I cannot tolerate letting something like that slide.”
Shagbark was at full voice now. “The chieftains you hear of in legend all worked for the love of the town. And you can bet,” he said in the most powerful voice of all, fixing Rhub with his terrible eyes, “that death won’t keep any good chieftain from the work of the town.”
A whispering moved through the folk like a light breeze, and I stared at Shagbark in amazement and fear. Something was wrong – scathingly, desperately wrong.
“For these reasons, I’m saying that Acorn should be chieftain,” he said, exhausted.
The townspeople were abuzz, but I scarcely noticed as Shagbark, sagging, drained, stepped off the mound to me. “Shagbark,” I said through my teeth, which I had clenched to still my shaking. “What is wrong?”
He raised his head wanly. “I’m dying. And Rhubarb is leaving.” He started to hobble after him, dodging all the raccoons who crowded around to congratulate him.
Shagbark leaned down and spoke in my ear so none of the raccoons could hear him. “Don’t stop for the crowd,” he muttered. “Follow that rascal, but don’t let him see you.”
“Don’t question me: go!”
I spun away and dashed after Rhubarb, darting through the amazed townspeople as Shagbark’s fury rang in my ears. He had never in his life exploded at me.
I was out of the crowd. Behind me, Shagbark raised his voice. “Good people, let me pass!” Well ahead of me was Rhubarb, alone, walking into the forest proper.
The crowd noise faded behind me as I tried to run lightly through the crisp fallen leaves. Rhub strode along. The shadows of the nearly leafless trees stretched along the forest floor from the late moon as it slipped down the sky. Rhub disappeared into a patch of shadow and reappeared weirdly in the moonlight. I shivered to think of him stopping in shadow, waiting for me.
He zigzagged down a slope, toward where moonlight glinted off a rivulet that trickled eastward through roots and matted leaves. Rhubarb clambered onto one of the large smooth rocks that jutted out of the ground and sat, staring at the thin gleam of water.
As soon as he stopped, I ducked behind a tree, then lowered myself until my nose was buried in leaves and loam. My heart pounded in my ears and the leaves stealthily crackled beneath my chest as I tried to still my breathing. Then I heard whispering.
I eased my eye around the tree. Rhubarb was clutching his stomach and leaning forward, eyes clenched, as if trying to clamp down on some pain. “Sweetfern. Sweetfern,” he hissed.
I shivered, feeling the annoying prickle of my hackles rising. So now what, Shagbark? I wondered. I wanted to run over and yell at Rhub, but I didn’t dare. Rhub had insulted me and threatened me since I was a cub. He was furious that some “mewling cub,” as he liked to call me, should dare be chieftain in his place. Waah waah.
From far off came a faint stir of leaves. A slow tread, but a familiar one, coming from the town.
Rhub jerked up and he muttered something rude. He unfolded himself and got to his feet, still clutching his stomach. Then – he forced himself to do this – his face cleared, his paws fell to his side, and he walked toward the sound, his face hard. I tried my best to shrink into the ground because he was walking almost right at me. If he should see me! … but then he stopped when Shagbark’s rumble rolled in.
“There you are. You blackcoat, what did you put in that mead?”
“I beg your pardon?” Rhub said blandly.
“You know I’m dying.” Shagbark came into my view. He went to a hickory and sagged against it, face fixed on Rhub.
“Why’d you come out here?” Rhub said wearily.
“Don’t play stupid. You sure got a funny way of showing your friendship.”
“Of course,” Rhub snapped, rounding on him. “You should talk. That’s the second time you’ve betrayed me, hoisting that runt up there in my place.”
“Show some respect,” Shagbark said sharply. “You know it can’t be you.”
For a moment they faced each other under the stars. Then Shagbark leaned against the tree, pressing a paw to his heart. “I never thought it would come to this. Remember when we swore to be blood brothers when we were cubs?”
Rhub spat. “This is the most pathetic piece of claptrap…”
“We swore the oath, but then your ma and pa died, and you disappeared. When you came back from living with those humans, it was like you was the Coyote King. I couldn’t talk to you for all the airs you put on.” Shagbark couldn’t keep still. He shifted against the tree, feet rearranging themselves in the leafmold. His voice became tight. “And then that thing with Blackbird’s cubs.”
“Oh, shut up. You dare bring that up again?”
Shagbark’s face twitched and he began rubbing his arm. “How can you not be sorry for the harm you’ve done?”
Rhub shoved his face into Shagbark’s. “Let me tell you a few discomfiting things. That little crybaby cub you call your successor is mine now. Did you think of that? You won’t be able to protect him now ….”
Shagbark gasped. Rhub stopped, his hatred draining away as Shagbark’s desperate eyes met his.
I rose from behind the tree, frightened, but held in disbelief: this can’t be happening.
Shagbark tipped forward and grasped Rhub’s shoulder. Rhub cried, “No! Don’t!” and caught him. But he was not strong enough to keep Shagbark from slipping to the ground.
Shagbark tried to look at Rhub but his eyes kept wandering off. “For all you’ve done, for all you will engender, I forgive you.”
He slipped through Rhub’s arms and collapsed.
Rhub looked down at Shagbark with his fists pressed against his skull, breathing like a hysterical person preparing to scream. Then, with a deep rattled breath, he fled
I ran to Shagbark, who had curled up. I saw his face and knew that I was losing him. “Shagbark! Shagbark!” I cried, shaking him.
He placed his paw over mine. “Garnet. She can prove this. Talk to her ….” He convulsed once and I desperately tried to make him stop. “Forgive him. Chereshii,” he murmured, then, with a deep sigh, relaxed.
I pressed my ear to his chest but was crying too hard to hear a heartbeat; I lifted my head to call for Hobbes, the town medic, but all that came out was a thin mewl.
A rush of leaves behind me. Sure that it was Rhub, coming back to gloat, I sprang up and hurtled into his chest and knocked him down.
“Oof! Hold off!” Paddy’s astonished face met mine. “What happened? He’s hurt!” The newsmonger didn’t wait for an answer; he shouted for Hobbes in a voice that would carry through forests and stone alike.
Chereshii. In the old language, the word meant “remember.” I repeated it to myself at Shagbark’s final Ritual, as I kneeled and let the crumbs from my pawful of earth fall on his shroud, laid in the wounded earth. I was numb, but my mind was sharp as splinters of ice. Shagbark was older and wiser than I, but our friendship was unbreakable.